The second post in our new series VERTIGO, by Curator in Residence Ellen Greig, focusing on verticality, power and the limits of the visible in artist moving image from the LUX and Cinenova collections.
John Latham’s film, Erth, 1971, demonstrates an orbital free-fall from the fringes of outer space to the surface of the Earth. Travelling through time and space, Latham’s camera mimics a falling object on rotation through the cosmos, caught in extended, eerily calming spells of silent darkness that are occasionally interspersed with glimpses of the Earth’s glowing sphere and a muffled voice-over as if transmitted from somewhere else. With each extended black frame light years pass and the Earth becomes reassuringly nearer with each rotation. Distance is being mapped in slow time.
In my last post I briefly referenced how the first satellite imagery from the space missions of 1946 and the effect of Apollo 11‘s touch-down on the moon marked a more tangible relationship to a perspectival vantage point that was once only imagined as a Gods-eye-view. Latham made Erth in 19711, two years after the first human landed on the moon, and at a moment when funding for space travel was at its peak, fuelled by competitive Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The late sixties and seventies marked a time of expanded subjectivity, where anxieties regarding past, present, and future projections of identity collapsed in response to the shift in elevated vision and the mapping of new territories that the Cold War’s “space race” permitted. Reading Erth within this cultural and political context, and alongside Latham’s concern for ecological and geological systems, the work pulls the viewer’s attention to what Latham described as the ‘whole event’2. The view of the Earth as a whole produced a representation of the planet void of national and geopolitical boundaries – as well as human presence – providing a new perspective that Latham felt ‘necessary if humanity is to see itself objectively’.3
As the film continues, Earth gets closer and time becomes faster. Images of abstracted landscape viewed from an aerial perspective segue into a continuous shot of high-speed scanning over an entire volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Text and image blur into an abstracted mess of information – a sped-up, confused and muddled history of the world. This amalgamation of information represents a murky accelerated experience of the basis of learnt knowledge. In the final frames of Erth a blurred figure is seen in the landscape, a representative of the ‘brilliant streptococcus organism for which no antidote exists’.4
The collapse of voyages through space and time at a moment that was marked by the tensions of the Cold War era can also be explored in Charles and Ray Eames’s seminal 1977 short film Powers of Ten. Commissioned and funded by software corporation IBM and produced by the Eames Office (the Los Angeles-based firm founded by the husband-and-wife design duo), Powers of Ten is a step-by-step visual journey through resolution and magnification of both inner and outer realms of the universe. Extending the film’s predominately educational function, the work, recognised within the context of Eames’ history of film commissions that engage with propagandist systems of national representation5, is a direct depiction of domination and control of the realms that it pictures6.
Beginning with an aerial view of a couple relaxing in an idyllic picnic scene in Chicago, Powers of Ten begins its upward orbit – using the logarithmic scale of tens to simultaneously expand outwards into galaxies, followed by a dizzying zoom inwards to the depths of atoms. The fast-paced motion away and zoom in from an object, not dissimilar to the now customary zooming-in-and-out of interfaces like Google Earth or Maps, was at the time a vertiginous collapse of the everyday depiction with which the piece begins. As Alan Lightman observes: “we feel dizzy and overwhelmed. Suddenly the camera begins compressing, shrinking in powers of ten: we fly through galaxies, solar systems, planets, are back in our park, back to the familiar and the comfortable. We want to stop here and recuperate in the warm sun, but the camera won’t let us, it keeps galloping to smaller and smaller scales: to microscopic tissues, molecules, atoms, the interior of atoms, and we see the unknown grinning at us from this side as well. The unknown has surrounded us. The world of the everyday seems now like an illusion.”7
The perspectival expansion of the Earth’s horizon has long been an open quarry for speculating futures, host to fears regarding the acceleration of technology and suggesting platforms for conquering new territories. Like in recent blockbuster sci-fi, survivalist epics Gravity, 2013 and Interstellar, 2014, we’re tethered to the depths of outer space, saturated by hubris scientific concepts that parallel religious hope whilst drenched in evermore-impressive 3D technological effects. The ‘whole event’ that Latham’s Erth hinges upon is holistic, beautiful, compelling, but also susceptible to a slowly dawning ecological disaster that preoccupies much of the futuristic speculations today. In the continuous search for the whole event, we’re simultaneously looking both outwards and inwards.
Ellen Greig is a curator based in London.
1 Under the Artist Placement Group initiative, the film was funded by a small grant obtained from the National Coal Board’s Film Unit, in a time when the Board was faced with controversial pit closures and redundancies in the UK.
3 John A. Walker, unpublished manuscript, 1987, in Chrissie Iles, ‘Introduction’, John Latham: The N–U Niddrie Heart, exhibition catalogue, Lisson Gallery, London 1992, unpaginated.
5 See Eames Office’s Glimpses of The U.S.A, 1959. “For its first USSR-USA cultural exchange, the U.S.I.A. commissioned the Eames Office to make this film on ‘a day in the life of the United States’ ”.For more information visit: http://www.eamesoffice.com/the-work/glimpses-of-the-u-s-a-film/
6 Mark Dorrian ‘Adventure on the Vertical’, cabinet Magazine http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/44/dorrian.php [accessed November 2011]
7 Alan Lightman, “A Sense of the Mysterious,” in Donald Albrecht et al., The Work of Charles and Ray Eames, op. cit., pp. 122–123, via Mark Dorrian ‘Adventure on the Vertical’, cabinet Magazine http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/44/dorrian.php [accessed November 2011]